President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015.
Trenton Copeland was just 29 when he was told he’d spend the rest of his life in prison for a cocaine offense. He froze in shock the moment the judge read out the sentence.
It seemed like an impossibly severe penalty.
“It was almost like the world just stopped completely,” his mother Annie Fray told Business Insider. “Life in prison, and he didn’t kill anybody, for drugs? That is very devastating.”
In 2011, Copeland was found guilty of conspiring to distribute and possess more than five kilograms of cocaine. Because of his prior drug offenses, Copeland’s crime carried a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole as per federal law — policies which have since been changed in certain cases, and would likely leave Copeland with a less severe punishment were he sentenced today.
Now, Copeland’s only hope of securing a release is pinned on President Obama and the remaining three months of his presidency.
Like thousands of federal inmates serving time for non-violent drug offenses, Copeland is waiting to see if he will be granted a commutation — a reduction of a prison sentence — before time runs out. Over the last 8 months, the Obama Administration has granted dozens and sometimes hundreds of prisoners’ commutations at a time in an unprecedented use of the president’s constitutional clemency power.
Early in October, Obama commuted the sentences of more than 100 inmates, bringing his total to 774 commutations meted out over his eight-year term. It’s more than the amount granted by the previous 11 presidents combined, and more than his successor will likely grant. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has not specified whether she will make clemency the priority that Obama has, and her opponent Donald Trump has expressed contempt for the initiative, calling the nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences were commuted “bad dudes.”
In August, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said that the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews clemency applications and recommends them to the president, will act on “every single drug petition” it has. As of October, 13,275 petitions remain pending.
Urgency is mounting as the weeks go by, according to lawyers and advocates involved in the presidential clemency process. Clemency Project 2014, a countrywide network of lawyers who vet and forward inmates’ petitions to the Pardon Attorney, has vowed to keep filing inmates’ petitions until the last